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Throughout 2018, the College Board came under fire from test-takers across the country for, among other things, applying wildly varying score curves to different test dates.

To find out why, we need to take a trip back in time.

Once upon a time, the College Board partnered with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administered the SAT. ETS included experimental sections in the old SAT in order to gauge difficulty levels and adjust score curves so that each iteration of the SAT was of roughly the same difficulty as other iterations of the test.

Around the time the SAT was redesigned, the College Board and ETS parted ways. The College Board started only offering experimental items to students who weren’t taking the SAT essay section. Back then, most top schools recommended the essay section, which meant that most top students weren’t in the pool of experimental test takers.

The result: The College Board’s data suggested that test items were harder than they really were, so too many students were getting supposedly hard questions right.

And that’s why curves got wonky.

The College Board is trying to recalibrate test difficulty by changing the way they pretest questions. The 2016 Advising and Admission Handbook for the Redesigned SAT included this tidbit:

     To allow for pretesting, some students taking the SAT with no Essay will take a fifth, 20-minute section. Any section of the SAT may contain both operational and pretest items.

As more and more students have opted out of taking the SAT Essay, this experimental section has become more common. This is from the Spring and Summer 2019 The SAT and SAT Subject Tests Supervisor Manual:

     At some centers, certain administrations will include an additional 20-minute section to be completed by all SAT test takers, including students taking the SAT with Essay.

In other words, students can expect to see this fifth section more often.

Does the fifth section count?

The College Board has been fairly mysterious about this fifth section, so no one knows for sure.

It’s certainly likely that at least some of the items in this extra section count. In order to get the most accurate data possible, it makes sense for the College Board to scatter experimental questions throughout all five sections of the test, making them virtually undetectable to test-takers, than to lump them all in one section that students know is experimental and thus doesn’t count.

Rumors have also indicated that this section might be used to identify possible cheating. If a student scores perfectly on all the other sections and bombs the fifth surprise section, that might be a red flag.

In either case, here’s our best advice: Try your best on every single question.

It’s not worth gambling your score on the possibility that the fifth section won’t hurt you.